Bychkov, Trifonov and CSO deliver powerhouse Russian program

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Thursday evening’s memorable Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert featured an all-Russian program in more ways than one.

It paired 20th-century Russian masterworks by two of that country’s composing giants – Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich. And, interestingly, each was written during a world war but with a strikingly different mood and feel.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Conductor Semyon Bychkov Highly Recommended When: Repeats 8 p.m. April 18 and 7:30 p.m. April 21 Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $33-$220 Info: (312) 294-3000;

In addition, the two guest performers – veteran conductor Semyon Bychkov and pianist Daniil Trifonov – were both born in Russia and have obvious, innate connections to these two pieces from their native country.

Trifonov, who was back for his second appearance with the orchestra, won both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions in 2011 at age 21 — a dazzling feat. He showed again Thursday that he is an extraordinary young pianist with all the makings of a major career.

He offered a solo performance in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1, that was both thrilling and spellbinding. While he possesses all the technique this challenging work demands and more, it was what he did with that technique that counted.

Trifonov has described this sunny, infrequently heard work as one filled with “fresh, original ideas,” and he brought that sense of freshness to his playing, infusing it with energy, brio and an amazingly nuanced range of tonal colors.

Nothing was taken for granted. He brought a zinging snappiness to a fast passage in one place and shaped a flittering group of upper-register notes elsewhere with a soft, light touch, rendering everything with as much physicality as sitting on a piano bench allows.

After his big, full-bodied take on the sweeping opening movement, which was highlighted by a captivating, variegated version of its long cadenza, he suffused the slow second movement with a thoughtfulness and lovely sense of wonder.

Throughout the concerto, the orchestra offered complementary, supportive accompaniment with Bychkov ensuring that the give and take between the soloist and ensemble was a well-balanced, lively dialogue.

If all that wasn’t satisfying enough, Trifonov returned to the stage for a much-deserved encore — a delicate, intoxicating take on Claude Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water)” from the composer’s “Images,” Vol. 1.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65, was written in 1943 during World War II, and like that epic conflict, it is complicated and never entirely understandable, reflecting both the lows of human depravity and the heights of transcendence.

Bychkov, who spent the first 22 years of his life in the Soviet Union, has an obvious affinity for this work, delivering both its power and pathos and completely embracing the ugly beauty that is so much a part of this composer’s work.

It is a work suffused grit, rawness, anger and vulnerability, and the conductor brought them all into sharp relief in this bold yet nuanced performance, which took listeners on a transformative, deeply affecting emotional journey.

The piece begins with a long first movement that could almost be a symphony unto itself, with an aching, mournful opening, a strident, marshal-like climax and a questioning slow section highlighted by a plaintive English horn solo effectively realized by Scott Hostetler.

After a maniacal, intervening scherzo comes the final three movements, which are performed without interruption as a unit, ending with what can be seen as at least a tentative ray of hope. Standing out was the slow, hollow fourth movement, a kind of emotional no man’s land marked with a series of significant solos. Among them was a moving meditation by guest principal horn player Nicole Cash from the San Francisco Symphony and a strident, high-pitched piccolo burst by Jennifer Gunn.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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